Monday, January 25, 2010

Remembering Earl Wild

Oh no, once again we are about to turn into the Obituary Web Log (OWL). Because not only did we talk about someone's death the other day but now we have lost Earl Wild. That is Wild pictured above. It is an early picture you do not often see.

Earl Wild is a pianist I love and he has always been so nice to me. I feel privileged to be able to write that sentence. I did get to talk to Wild on the phone on three different occasions, twice for The Buffalo News when he was coming to town to play, and once for my book on Leonard Pennario.

And this is says a lot about how nice Wild is: I did not really have to call him for my book. He was one of the people I called first thing, when I was in California with Leonard, and I did not have the foggiest idea what I was doing and I was calling all kinds of people who, looking back, I see I did not need to call. Wild did not know Pennario all that well. He joined him one year on the jury of the Van Cliburn Competition. After that their paths crossed here and there over the years, as pianists' paths do.

But Pennario liked Wild very much, and Pennario did not like everyone. He loved Wild's sense of humor. And Wild did say a few great things to me, and I am extremely honored to be able to add the voice of this wonderful man to my book. Best of all, I got to get the conversation on tape. That was a secret reason I made that phone call! The previous two times I had talked to Earl Wild, my tape had screwed up. And always it was in the back of my mind that some day I would get one more chance.

Speaking of which, when I was on the phone with Wild for my Pennario book I digressed from the topic of Pennario, which, trust me, I never do. Normally I would rather talk about Pennario than anything! But in Wild's case I entreated him to tell me again a story he had told me before, about how when he wore this really loud and stinky cologne when he was a kid and playing celeste with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony. Wow, that story made me laugh. I was dying to have it on tape and now I do.

I hope he put that story in his memoirs, which I was happy to hear are to be published this year. If he does not, though, I will be around to tell it. Anyway, Wild was very nice to me, and so was his companion, Michael Davis, who arranged the interview for me. I felt a kind of kinship with Michael, both of us in the trenches with these old men, speaking for them, negotiating their schedules. Both of us knowing we were on borrowed time.

I thank God for Wild's long and full life. If someone makes it to 94 you do not have a lot to complain about. I am also glad that Earl Wild got some renown late in his life, while he was still alive. There was this story for instance in the New York Times. Wild was able to play until the last couple of years, which kept him in the public consciousness, and that was a blessing all around.

Last spring I was remembering something Wild had told me and I wrote about it.

Here is Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun writing about Wild. I will also have to write something about him on The Buffalo News' Web log because Wild had a special friendship going with Buffalo in his last years, and made a couple of recordings in our town.

The world will not be the same without Earl Wild in it.

I will miss him!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Opera gentleman

A big voice in classical radio is gone. He was 90. His name was George Jellinek. My friend Steven Carlson at Instant Encore alerted me to this today, to this loss. George Jellinek used to be in charge of WQXR in New York City and he also was known for his erudite interviews with singers. He is pictured above with his wife.

Here is a clip of him interviewing the singer Virginia Zeani.

As I told Steven, to hear their accents together is hilarious!

We are always seeing pictures of George Jellinek old but here is a picture of him younger.

George Jellinek seems like an educated man of the sort we do not often find now. He wrote a book, "The Road to Radio and 'The Vocal Hour.'" And in it he mentions that he took seven years of Latin, "an invaluable asset."

Who in the world takes seven years of Latin now?

I used to hear Jellinek sometimes on the Texaco Opera Quiz they used to run during intermissions in the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.

I miss those square old voices on the radio.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A fresh voice

I am not the only one spilling all my secrets out onto the anonymous Internet, blogging my heart away. There is also the Israeli mezzo soprano Rinat Shaham!

It is funny, how the Internet works. You get a Web log going and you forget that you do not know exactly where it goes. Do not ask me how I happened today to find Rinat Shaham's Web log. It is a long story involving that she once gave a recital on Buffalo's Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series, and also that now she is playing Carmen starting next week at the Canadian Opera Company. Anyway I could not believe some of the stuff she wrote. I mean, talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve.

Here is Rinat Shaham's blog. She is no relation to Gil Shaham by the way. She does not have to be. She is entertaining enough on her own.

I find that my friends divide into two groups: the mystics and the not. I always had a tendency to believe the world of spirits, cards, stars, and magic.

That is what she writes in October 2009. And then:

At any rate, I was traveling to Paris to be with close girlfriends of mine, both I think have strong witchery talents, and we 3 ended up at a fourth one's apartment, where we were all given some "reading" and some advice.

Uh, oh, Miss Shaham. Readings are not good. Witches are not good. Your life is good, you know? Cease and desist.

What else?

This paragraph is touching. It is a very candid account of insecurity and it kills me, coming from someone as beautiful as Rinat Shaham who, from what I have read, she makes a smoldering Carmen.

But when I stepped into my first dress; The one in which I have to make my big entrance, and sing the Habanera , (and in it I immediately transform from Rini to Carmen, feeling fierce and sexy) , looking in the full-length mirror in my dressing room, all I could see was a frumpy , dumpy, short and fat woman staring at me with horror in her eyes.

There was also this account of singing "Carmen" in Israel where they used actual horses.

The horses pooed all over stage, and we had to maneuver ourselves, skipping in between their doodoo, and trying to keep our own drama going.

Oh my gosh my golly. That "pooed" she has links to a video headlined "Opera Horse Poo."

Too funny.

An undersung Web log, so to speak.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

To create, or not to create

I love high-minded quotes and here are two from the violinist Henri Temianka. He is the dapper fellow in the picture above which was taken in 1932. I had to look up something relative to my book and I found these two quotes.

Take it, Mr. Temianka:

“You have a choice: to create, or not to create.”

“There are three fool-proof ways to avoid criticism: Say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

Those are just on Wikipedia! Imagine what else is out there. How funny, this mild-mannered guy and he comes out with these firebrand statements. I will have to get a hold of Mr. Temianka's book, "Facing the Music." It was published in 1973 and my guess is it is out of print.

As you can read on the Wikipedia page, Henri Temianka used to play chamber music with Pennario and Piatigorsky "and other luminaries." I like that word, luminaries. They used to play chamber music professionally and also for fun. The Wikipedia entry has something on that. Mr. Temianka wrote in his book:

“The happiest times have always been when we have chamber music at our house -- veritable orgies of informal music-making, gastronomy, and story-swapping, with everybody in shirtsleeves. The warmth of musical and human empathy is unique. As we play, unrehearsed, a quartet of Beethoven or Mozart, there are extraordinary flashes of insight, thrilling moments of truth when we share the same concept of an exquisite phrase, sculpt the same melodic line, linger and savor the same ritardando or diminuendo. In those moments we spontaneously look up from our music, exchanging ecstatic smiles and glances. It is a level of spiritual communication granted few human beings.”

"In shirtsleeves." That is so quaint! To get the idea now, you would have to say that people were sitting around in T-shirts. Well, everyone sits around in T-shirts anyway. There is no formality now but back then gentlemen always wore jackets and ties, is my understanding.

A different era.

OK, back to work. I have a choice today: to create, or not to create.

You heard the man.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Into the sunset

Vladimir Horowitz, his influence lasts! Check out this story on Murray Perahia, the Poet of the Piano.

Apparently Horowitz chased after Perahia when the Poet of the Piano was a kid. Horowitz wanted to teach him. This is still something to be talked about in reverent whispers.

Here you had all the pianists in the world supposedly beating on Horowitz's door and all Horowitz would give them was a cold nod. But Murray Perahia, there was something about him Horowitz liked. And here it is decades later, and Perahia has had this long and wonderful career, and yet what do we focus on? Horowitz liked him. Horowitz wanted to teach him. Horowitz would ring his doorbell and leave him notes.

Imagine Horowitz ringing your doorbell.

Your roommate tells you: "Vladimir Horowitz came by again."

You say: "Oh, he is such a problem. Please, keep telling him I am busy."

I ask you.

I admire the playing of Murray Perahia. But something seems wrong when we have Horowitz, this old crab, still bossing us from the grave as far as which pianists to listen to and which not to bother with. I mean, I like a lot of his recordings, but enough is enough, you know? He was this eccentric guy and God knows why he hung out with the people he did and liked the people he did. I am tired of taking it so seriously.

Can't Murray Perahia's playing just stand on its own?

Just this one clip could make him immortal as far as I am concerned.

That Oscar Wilde hairstyle! I love it.

And the Schubert is not bad either.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The folks I met at the Met

What with talking about my weird experiences at the Metropolitan Opera Simulcast I  never got around to mentioning my other impressions on the production of "Der Rosenkavalier."

One thing, I forgot how adult the whole opera is. My sister Katie teaches high school German and was thinking of taking her class and I say, "Achtung!" This is really a sex comedy like "The Marriage of Figaro" and before I took high schoolers with all their friends I would really think twice.

Another thing, I am not sure that the big screen, with all those huge closeups, works with an opera like this. From a distance you can suspend disbelief and the "trousers role" works: You can imagine Susan Graham being a man. Up close it is tough. Although I do give Susan Graham credit for capturing those male mannerisms. I once interviewed a singer about doing that for "Hansel and Gretel." She was playing Hansel and she told me about the adjustments you have to make when you are playing a boy. I thought Susan Graham did that beautifully.

Amazing, that Renee Fleming and Susan Graham sang "Rosenkavalier" together at the Met 10 years ago. At the Simulcast I learned that on intermission the camera takes you backstage. You glimpsed Fleming and Graham walking offstage and they kind of clasped hands for a moment before going their separate ways. Old buddies in this opera.

As Sophie, I thought Christine Schaefer was a bit too stern and moody. Poor Octavian, he was trading in one moody woman for another. Well, maybe that is his type.

I had forgotten the magnificence of the Baron Ochs role. Forgive me: The last time I saw this opera all the way through, I was 16.  Our Ochs in this production was terrific. They brought him in from Finland. He has a beautiful name,  Kristinn Sigmundsson. He was a biologist, imagine that! That is he in the picture up above except it is a different Sophie.

Sigmundsson was a wonderful Ochs. He had all these great comic touches, such as after Faninal kisses his hand you see him wipe his hand off on the back of the jacket of one of his manservants. Ha, ha! You had to look closely to see that but I did. His manservants all looked like guys out of "Monty Python," unkempt and rough. When Ochs came out for his curtain calls he blew kisses to the audience. On the second intermission the camera followed him backstage and you saw him walking through backstage in his red coat like a big live nerve. Radiating life and humor and fun. And acting like Ochs, as if he owns the place.

They asked him something about how he approached the role and what he thought of Baron Ochs.

He gloated: "The opera was almost named after me!" Which, amazingly, it was. The working title was "Ochs von Lerchenau." It is incredible to imagine it being called that now, accustomed as we are to the romantic title "Der Rosenkavalier."

Then Sigmundsson said: "There is a little bit of Ochs in all of us."

Ain't that the truth!

There was a more than a little bit of Ochs in the guy behind me in the theater, I have to say that. Well, I griped about that already. I have to put that behind me.

Ochs is supposed to be this bumptious German of the worst type but here is one thing: Those glorious romantic waltzes, they all come from Ochs' music. You can tell that Strauss viewed this oaf with affection. He liked Ochs. It shows in the music.

Funny, when Ochs looks at Octavian and says, "I see myself in him." So does it work out that Octavian was in reality Ochs' son? It sure looked that way to me.

It is great that Ochs in English is the exact same thing, ox. We can get the joke.

It is also great that the stereotypes of the little servant boy and the Italian tenor hang on. Nice of the world to respect that they are needed in the opera.

My mother cried at the ending. When the servant boy skips in to pick up the handkerchief. That is such a beautiful ending and the little boy who played the part did it so well.

What a masterpiece that opera is, from the first second to the last.

Friday, January 8, 2010


Today my Facebook friend Jeffrey Biegel wrote that he had found himself twice driving behind the great piano technician Franz Mohr, pictured above. I listened up because first of all I had interviewed Mohr for my Leonard Pennario book, and second of all I had liked his book "My Life With the Great Pianists."

On Amazon the three amateur reviewers rip the book apart because of Mohr's emphasis on his religion, which is born-again Christian.

Me, I liked that aspect. It is not exactly my religion -- I am Catholic -- but I got a kick out of it, how Mohr kept trying to convert all the Jewish pianists. It was just funny. And it gave you an angle on them you would not get from anyone else, that was for sure.

Rubinstein saying: "The Son of God? Forget it!"

Do I have that right? I'm not sure. What is funny is Mohr always waiting in the wings, writing, "I had asked the Lord to give me an opportunity to talk to Horowitz about my faith," etc. It just never ended. It was like the joke of the book. I really enjoyed it.

These reviewers are so uptight.

Being from Buffalo I loved one story Mohr told about how Glenn Gould was detained on the Peace Bridge which is our bridge to Canada. He had to call and explain, "They won't let me in because of all the pills."

Ha, ha!

Lots of fun, in that book.

Mohr was nice to me when I called, by the way, which was out of the blue, when he was on his way to the airport.

That says worlds.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Take the Opera Quiz

I dropped by the Metropolitan Opera's site today and they had this quiz. It completely cracked me up!

The quiz determines which opera would be right for you. It is geared more to girls than to guys, is one fault it has, but I have to say it is very funny. I took the quiz at work and was laughing and laughing. I got my co-workers laughing too. That is how funny it is!

Without giving much away I will reveal that the opera the quiz ended up suggesting for me was...


The runner-up was "La Traviata."

Both operas that I like, I have to say that. I love the party scene in "Traviata"! Verdi could do parties, that was for sure. The end of the opera kind of bugged me, because I am so used to German opera where there is this weight when you get to a climactic moment. With Verdi you just got that little waltz rhythm and then a bel canto style melody and that bugged the heck out of me. I was looking around feeling confused and shortchanged. But other than that, I like "Traviata."

Take the quiz, someone, and let me know how it turns out.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Chefs' surprise

Ominous news from my mother, about the Metropolitan Opera's recent "Hansel and Gretel." Apparently the 14 angels were replaced by 14 chefs.

You know, the angels that guard over the children as they sing the beautiful slumber song.

Those are the chefs up above, in the scene where the children are asleep. I would rather have angels watching over me, I will tell you that right now!

The rationale for the switch was apparently that the children were hungry and so would be dreaming of food. Fie, say I. For one thing angels are poignant and these cartoon chefs, while cute, are not. And that is a part of the opera where you do not want to laugh. It is a beautiful interlude and there is no reason you have to be laughing every second, you know?

The new thing seems to be to erase religion from these operas and I think that is wrong. It is like that "Tosca" we explored a while ago, when they dispensed with having Tosca lay the crucifix on Scarpia's chest.

People are threatened by religion, is all I can think. Oh, look, there is this blogger who disapproves of this "Hansel and Gretel" too. I am glad! I was afraid I would stand alone.

One good thing about "Hansel and Gretel": Hansel was Angelika Kirschschlager. She is a singer I love!

Here she is singing "Der Nussbaum."

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Music for the New Year

I started out the New Year by playing Bach on the piano. There is something about Bach that is clean and optimistic and bracing and new and quietly, over the years, I have established this tradition for myself. That is that I sit down at the piano on New Year's Day and I play this one Bach prelude and fugue. It is in E flat. I am trying to find it on YouTube but I keep finding the wrong E flat prelude and fugue.

Oh, wait! I found this gentleman playing it. Here he is.

I just like this prelude and fugue. I love the fugue theme. Years ago I read and reviewed a book by this author Eric Altschuler. Isn't it funny, I still remember his name. It must have been 10 or 15 years ago. Anyway, he had all kinds of fun with the Bach Well-Tempered Clavier and one thing I remember, he said that the theme of this E flat fugue is one of the greatest fugue melodies in the whole work. I think he had a Top 10 and he put it in that list. He would explain the pieces and analyze them as if they were baseball games. I remember that.

I wonder where Eric Altschuler is now. I wonder if he is still studying his Bach. He called me after the review I wrote and we talked. For quite a while, as I remember! That was unusual.

His book is still for sale on Amazon. I just looked. Here it is. It is called "Bachanalia" and that is the book pictured at left.

The E flat is my favorite prelude and fugue.

Perfect, to start out the new year.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Liszt and Brahms

My brother George borrowed my Jan Swafford biography of Brahms and has been reading it and I have been re-reading it through his eyes. Here is one thing that had him laughing and now I am laughing at it too.

We have it on pretty good authority that when Liszt was playing the B Minor Sonata, and he got to a particularly affecting moment, he looked up to gauge the effect on his audience. This is page 68 I am reading from. Liszt looked up and Brahms was asleep.

Ha, ha!

"Liszt kept playing, but at the end he brusquely rose from the keyboard and left the room."

Writing my book on Pennario I find I am partial to the Liszt B Minor Sonata the way he plays it. It has warmth and drama. I would not be asleep listening to that. It does not look as if the people in the above painting are asleep either. My favorite part of that picture is the bust on the piano. Who the heck is that? Bach? Mozart? All I can figure is it was someone very un-Liszt.

Someone like Brahms, in other words. I am glad Brahms was asleep, listening to Liszt play that sonata! That is the kind of story I love. I love stories that involve two great figures from music, interacting in funny ways.

This Swafford bio is the kind of book I love.

Very well written and interesting all the way through.